Shirley Booth: Higher Heights Than “Hazel”

At the outset, my Shirley Booth post was strictly going to be about Hazel, but I rapidly realized that was mad injustice. The actress was a dynamo on stage, and on radio as well as screens big and small. There’s much more to talk about than that one five-year engagement.

Born Marjorie Ford in Brooklyn in 1898, she later changed her name (several times) because her family didn’t approve of her stage career. In addition to Brooklyn, she spent parts of her childhood in Philadelphia and Hartford, where she first performed with stock companies. By 1925 she had made it to Broadway opposite Humphrey Bogart in Hell’s Bells. No less than ten more Broadway shows followed before George Abbott saw her performing in Dorothy Parker skits at the Barbazon Hotel and cast her in Three Men on a Horse, which ran two years (1935-37), putting her on the map. She was also in the original stage production of The Philadelphia Story (1939-40), followed by My Sister Eileen (1940-43).

At the same time, she had a role in the popular radio series Duffy’s Tavern (1941-43), created by her then-husband Ed Gardner.

Several other Broadway shows followed through the 1940s, before another couple of big ones came along, the original productions of Come Back,Little Sheba (1950) and a musical version of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1951).

Sheba of course is the pinnacle of her career. The screen version in 1952 became her first movie, and she won both a Tony and an Oscar for her role as the long-suffering simple-minded wife of a frustrated alcoholic (played by Burt Lancaster in the movie, Sidney Blackmer in the play).

She won another Tony for her performance in The Time of the Cuckoo (1952-53), and was in the original production of The Desk Set (1955-56) among other plays. In 1958 she starred in title role in the screen version of Thornton Wilder’s The Matchmaker (the later basis for the musical Hello, Dolly).

THEN she was cast in the title role of the TV sitcom adaptation of the comic strip Hazel, which ran from (1961 through 1966). You must agree Booth had accomplished a good deal prior to that — over three decades of acclaimed performances. Hazel was popular but formulaic, and a bit old-fashioned for its day (having seen a few episodes, I was startled to learn when it aired — it certainly has a ’50s vibe about it). The travails of a domestic as she serves the family of businessman George Baxter (Don Defore). But TV was particularly sluggish about catching up with the times in those days. Booth was iconic in the role though; I strongly suspect the part of “Rosie” in The Jetsons is a quiet nod to her.

Folks have forgotten that Booth starred in yet another sitcom: A Touch of Grace, which ran for one season in 1973. Based on the British series For the Love of Ada, it starred Booth as a widow who moves in with her children and begins a romance with an old gent played by J. Patrick O’Malley. 

In 1974, Shirley Booth’s last role, and the first one I ever saw (heard) her in: that of Mrs. Claus in the Rankin-Bass holiday special The Year Without a Santa Claus, in which she has to contend with a suicidally depressed Kris Kringle (Mickey Rooney). We wrote about that weird show here.

Shirley Booth passed way in 1992.